Like many small towns, Black Jack, Missouri, still has a law on the books that prohibits cohabitation. But unlike virtually all other communities, Black Jack officials are enforcing the ordinance.
The St. Louis suburb, which has a population of 7,500, recently denied an occupancy permit to an unmarried Minnesota couple who had purchased a four-bedroom home because they didn’t fit Black Jack’s definition of family.
The cohabiting couple has two children, plus another from the woman’s previous relationship. The local occupancy code forbids more than three people living together in a single-family residence unless they are related by “blood, marriage or adoption.”
The American Civil Liberties Union rushed to defend the rights of the couple, calling the ordinance archaic.
While modern society indeed views cohabitation as the norm, it hasn’t been that long since not only cities but also states outlawed living together without benefit of clergy. Most people considered “shacking up” the equivalent of “living in sin.”
Now it’s hardly stigmatized. In fact, “domestic partner” almost has a sense of respectability about it in business circles.
Cohabitation has reached such acceptability that it is the forerunner to two-thirds of all American marriages, according to Scott M. Stanley, co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver.
Nevertheless, marriage experts say living together is damaging to long-term relationships as well as Christian ethics for a variety of sociological, psychological and spiritual reasons. While cohabiting couples assert a wedding license really isn’t all that important, researchers conclude the little piece of paper makes a tremendous difference.
And while Christians and parachurch organizations expend great energy combating homosexuality and abortion, the destructive lifestyle of this sexually charged issue is often ignored.
“As a church, we are correct in having a high standard on divorce,” says Dennis Franck, director of Single Adult Ministries for the Assemblies of God. “However, we should have an equally high standard for marriage.”
Only 523,000 American couples lived together in 1970, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That increased more than tenfold by the turn of the century to 5.5 million couples. During the 1990s, the percentage of cohabiting couples rose a whopping 72 percent.
While most people eventually marry, these days they also experiment by living together first. That includes one in five women attending a Protestant church weekly, according to the National Survey of Family Growth.
Around 55 percent of those who move in together marry within five years. Another 40 percent break up without marrying.
“The biggest problem is these relationships are tentative,” says Janice Shaw Crouse of Concerned Women for America. “They generally last about 18 months. They are not good for the couple, they are not good for the children and they are not good for society, because the family is really the foundation of a nation.”
Subsequently, today there are hundreds of thousands of “serial cohabitants” moving from one experimental relationship to another. “Many couples say they want to live together to see if they are compatible, not realizing that cohabitation is more a preparation for divorce than it is a way to strengthen the likelihood of a successful marriage,” Crouse says.
Couples who live together before marriage have a 50 percent greater chance of divorce than those who don’t.
The social stigma has largely evaporated, except in conservative Christian circles. Barna Research Group reports three-fourths of never-married adults accept cohabitation as “morally acceptable.”
Numerous famous couples model the lifestyle, including: Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell; Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins; Oprah Winfrey and Stedman Graham; Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard. But overall, such long-term relationships are infrequent. Only 10 percent of cohabitants stay together longer than five years.
Reasons people give for living together vary. Many are against marriage because they want to avoid the type of nasty divorce their parents experienced. Others see matrimony as repressive and irrelevant in today’s culture. Some suggest living together merely represents economic sense, beginning with the theory they can’t afford an elaborate wedding and honeymoon.
Ironically, where peer pressure has been a factor in many hasty marriages, today there is reverse peer pressure to move in together without being married because so many friends are doing it.
“Living together is not the panacea a lot of people think it is,” says Stanley, author of “The Power of Commitment: A Guide to Active, Lifelong Love.” “Pragmatically it doesn’t work.”
Stanley cites a recent “inertia” trend of couples who otherwise wouldn’t wed “sliding” into marriage. For instance, if a couple has a child together and buys property together, that often spurs them to finally legalize the relationship. But such factors, by themselves, aren’t the backbone for a successful, devoted bond, Stanley says.
Cohabitation Undermines Marriage
While many of those “testing the waters” eventually take the plunge, experts say such a “maybe I do” pledge is a blueprint for a weaker foundation once married.
It boils down to a lack of commitment and trust, which impacts everything else. How does a person who has been worried about whether the partner will bail when they live together adjust once the trial basis supposedly has become permanent? Couples who live together report lower levels of relational satisfaction and sexual fidelity. They exhibit higher levels of domestic violence and depression.
Children living in a home with cohabiting biological parents are 20 times as likely to be abused. Children whose mother lives with a boyfriend who is not the biological father are 33 times more likely to be abused. Poverty rates for children living in a home with cohabiting adults are higher than those living with parents who are married. Kids are more likely to get poor grades and become sexually active if living in a home where the adults are unmarried.
The unmistakable message sent to children of partners who don’t bother to legally seal their relationship is that marriage really doesn’t matter.
“Marriage is what God created as the fundamental relationship of life,” Stanley says. “You can’t read Scripture without realizing how God means for marriage to be the foundation for children.
People with great marriages are much more likely to show sacrificial love. Marriage is not a ‘me’ thing; it’s an ‘us’
Stanley says when couples wed they make a clear public statement that they intend to stay together for good. “People behave differently when they have a future,” Stanley says. “They are more likely to invest, both financially and emotionally, and more likely to sacrifice their time and energy.”
And contrary to stereotypes, study after study shows married couples report higher levels of sexual satisfaction than cohabitating couples.
For couples who decide to tie the knot after sharing a bed for months or even years, the honeymoon holds no mystery.
“If they already have been sleeping together, there’s nothing to discover about each other,” Crouse says. “It’s almost impossible for them to develop a meaningful relationship because sex has been recreation for so long.”
Researchers stress virtually any problem in society – ranging from poverty to domestic abuse – is worse in households where a couple lives together instead of being married. Children often bear the brunt in such situations.
“If you want to do something good for your children, marry before you have children,” Crouse says. “It’s sad that in our culture so many celebrities who can afford the very best for their children choose not to marry.”
Crouse laments that such couples who go to great expense, time and trouble to bring a baby into the world, don’t provide what the child needs most: married parents.
Stanley contends when a cohabiting couple has a baby the father’s family doesn’t connect as strongly as if the couple had married.
Of all the questions raised by nonbinding relationships, Franck notes, the most important are religious. “Christian singles who cohabit do not experience God’s best for them,” Franck says. “For the Christian, there should be only one reason to refrain from cohabitation: the Lord’s disapproval.”
—John W. Kennedy, reprinted with permission of The Pentecostal Evangel